Coloring the Multiverse: ‘EEAAO’ Colorist on Creating the Daniels’ Emotional, Visual Big Swings

Exclusive Images: “Moonlight” colorist Alex Bickel traverses the texture and looks of the multiverse.
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Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in the "movie star"-verse of "EEAAO"
a24/Courtesy of Alex Bickel

Colorist Alex Bickel is no stranger to working on some of A24’s biggest films, including collaborating with cinematographer James Laxton and director Barry Jenkins to create the bold color and contrast of “Moonlight,” and aiding cinematographer Sam Levy and director Greta Gerwig in giving “Lady Bird” the feel of a xeroxed zine. So it shouldn’t be a surprise he was also the behind-the-scenes secret weapon that helped The Daniels and cinematographer Larkin Seiple (this is Bickel’s third film with the DoP) delineate the distinct worlds of the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” multiverse, which appears poised to bring the studio its second Best Picture Oscar.

Like most of the colorist’s successful endeavors, the “EEAAO” collaboration started before the film went into production. “When I first read the screenplay, it was clear that there was a massive opportunity for the grade to play a huge role in grounding the audience in each universe,” Bickel told IndieWire in a recent interview. “I always felt that the audience should be able to know which universe they were in from the grade alone. And that this would help them make emotional sense of [Michelle Yeoh’s character] Evelyn’s epic journey.”

For production, Bickel and Seiple cooked up a few LUTs for the DIT, so the directors and cinematographer, along with costume designer Shirley Kurata and production designer Jason Kisvarday, could see on set a preview of the grades for the different looks like Janitor’s Closet, Raccacoonie, Hot Dog Fingers, Wong Kar-Wai, IRS and Temple universes. “It’s important to have a reasonably accurate representation of where we think we’re going to go with the grade so that all these different department heads can see it on set and make choices accordingly,” said Bickel.

Ultimately, there wasn’t enough time and money in the budget to work up a preview grade for each universe before production. “It really is an insane amount of unique looks,” said Bickel. “I can remember being on day 10 or 11 in the grade thinking, ‘OK, I think we finally invented all the universe looks we need and now can just polish.’ Then we’d get to a new sequence, and Larkin would say, ‘Now we need to craft a look for the ‘Law and Order’ universe.’”

That is why Bickel and Larkin spent most of their pre-production time together working out the grade for Evelyn’s present-day reality, represented by a still from the IRS location below. Added Bickel, “If the movie doesn’t set out on a really realistic and emotionally grounded foundation, then nothing else will work.”

"Everything Everywhere All at Once"
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”A24

This base-level grade’s starting point was more rooted in character than world-building. “When I collaborate with Larkin, and really most of the time when I come work with any filmmaker, our grades come from skin tone,” said Bickel. “We started with the goal of authentic skin tones. I don’t want to put words in Larkin’s mouth, but we talked a lot about chasing a complex skin tone where you can feel the blood under the skin. A little bit of ruddiness was good for us.”

For this base-level grade of “EEAAO,” Bickel and Larkin dialed into the color palette of Fujifilm film stocks. Bickel explains, “I think of Ektachrome [a 1950s Kodak stock that’s recently been brought back] as being really brassy, Agfa [a German film stock] as being mustard, and Fuji is kind of this in-between warmth. It has more yellow and less red than the Kodak worlds.”

The skin tone and a Fuji palette of Evelyn’s main universe also served as the base from which approximately 90 percent of the film’s distinctive looks sprung, including the “bigger visual swings” of the multiverse. Even when hues homogenized to one color, like in the pink of the Hot Dog world, it was built on this base grade of Evelyn’s current-day reality.

Those dramatic shifts in color — like the green of the staircase fight scene — were not simply sharp shifts to differentiate the branches of the multiverse but were often rooted in the DNA of their cinematic references.  

“The fight scene, where she jumps in the air, and she knees them, that is trying to emulate films where that would happen,” explained Bickel. “We borrowed from a film like ‘The Matrix,’ harking back to original bullet time based on numerous conversations the Daniels, Larkin, and I had throughout the process.” Yet more important to the grade of the multiverse was what Bickel referred to as the “emotional core of each reality.” 

It was not only crucial for the audience to be orientated, but there was also subjective grounding that drove most decisions. “The key was  making sure that the choices we were making in terms of color, texture, latitude — the things that I influence, and that Larkin and craft do together — are not just identifying the world, but communicating the emotional reality of that world.” The colorist’s favorite example of this was Evelyn’s flashbacks, the glimpses where she realizes her love for Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Bickel supplied the image below, which appears for a brief moment on screen, as one of Seiple and his favorite examples of this grade.

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Evelyn’s flashback in “EEAAO”A24/Courtesy of Alex Bickel

“It’s so fleeting,” said Bickel. “One of the fun things about that section is it really has to communicate the idea of memory; the sense of nostalgia needs to be really clear.” The irony of this grade, which Bickel is proudest of, is that it is the least polished compared to the rest of the film.

“This is a fun little secret: A lot of this was accomplished with a bad color temperature setting. We didn’t white-balance it. It’s raw, and to me, it feels like an authentic memory because our memories are fuzzy and not well crafted. By allowing that particular frame to be wrong in every sort of critical sense, it was the right choice for that emotion. It’s on screen for less than a second, but when I look at it, combined with Michelle Yeoh’s performance, it immediately telegraphs Evelyn’s sadness and sense of loss.”

While Bickel rooted the non-flashback footage in the grain of 35mm film stock, these memories were given the grainier look of 16mm. He also mirrored the reduced latitude of older 16mm stocks. “There’s a massive amount of latitude in the [ARRI] Alexa cameras, and the new ones that are coming will have even more, which is amazing when we’re telling a modern story and we want to capture as much detail as possible. But when we’re doing flashbacks like this, one of the things that we employed in this grade was to dramatically reduce that.”

Evelyn’s flashback of Waymond in “EEAAO”A24/Courtesy of Alex Bickel

Bickel points to the above still as an example. “We threw out a ton of the detail in the shadows. For example, if you look at her hair, there was a ton of detail in the negative, same with the highlights.” A big part of capturing the nostalgia of the older film stocks is also what happens to the color.

“I love the reds in this scene. Red is obviously a big part of the production design throughout the film, but if you compared this red to Michelle’s other outfits, like the Chinese New Year’s dress, it’s totally different. This one has a lot of berry to it, those other ones are really inky, in a way that is a nod towards more nostalgic, older film stocks.”

The ability to quickly, visually ground images in a sense of memory, as the film weaves in and out of different universes, contrasts with another of Bickel’s favorite “EEAAO” grades: the rock universe. The Daniels and Seiple originally wanted to capture the grandeur of these scenes by shooting in IMAX. “Shooting this part in IMAX, where literally nothing happens, the irony of that would be funny for them,” said Bickel. “It’s a very Daniels and Larkin thing to do.” After their iMax dreams proved impractical, the challenge became how to accomplish that same sense of grandeur. The answer came from a happy accident.

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The Rock Universe in “EEAAO”a24/Courtest of Alex Bickel

“That grade came out of an exploration that Larkin and I had already started for another project that shot after ‘Everything Everywhere,'” said Bickel. “We had built an emulation of a long out-of-print Kodak film stock favored by Gordon Willis [cinematographer of ‘The Godfather’].”

Bickel explained that when he and a cinematographer come up with a “new sauce,” they are excited about, it’s common for them to try it on a bunch of different footage just to see what it can do. When they applied it to the empty landscapes of “EEAAO” Rock Universe, they realized they had hit the jackpot.

“In addition to the sound design, lensing, and writing, I think one of the reasons the Rock Universe cuts through is due to the quality of the blues,” said Bickel. “Most of the LUTs used in the rest of the film jump off from that Fuji base palette with cyan undertones, but the Rock Universe has a totally crisp, expansive, almost infinite-feeling regal blue undertones.”

The freedom to try anything and encouragement to play with the medium is something Bickel loved about working on “EEAAO.” The colorist echoes what a number of the Daniels’ other collaborators have said throughout this awards season.

“The Daniels have a staggering imagination and also an uncanny ability to recapture that joyful energy I think many of us had as kids making movies with our friends and a camcorder,” said Bickel before sharing his favorite anecdote from this creative environment.

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Colorist Alex Bickel’s dog Ruby Tuesday in “EEAAO”a24/Courtesy of Alex Bickel

During one meeting, Bickel recalled how the Daniels mentioned that they needed more pictures of dogs for the everything bagel sequence. “I think I dropped everything for the rest of the day and photoshopped a picture of our very senior dog, Ruby Tuesday, to see if they might include her in the sequence,” recalled Bickel. “I’m sure they were probably thinking, ‘Shouldn’t you be grading the 10,000 shots in our film and not working on dog pictures?’ But if you look closely, Ruby is now a part of cinema history for 18 frames or so.” 

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